Ian Noe: Between the Country
“I’ve always thought that Eastern Kentucky had a certain kind of sound, and I can’t really explain it any better than that. There’s a silence about Eastern Kentucky. It’s quiet, at least where I was raised…I was trying to write songs that sounded like where I was living.”
There’s no better description for Ian Noe’s new album, Between the Country, than his own words. Nothing I write here can do it the justice it deserves. Nevertheless, here I am, because you need to hear about Ian Noe.
If you know me, you know I’m rarely speechless. I usually have more words than remotely necessary.
I’ve been listening to this album for two weeks now, and I’m still quite speechless. It’s a masterpiece. It’s the kind of nuanced, effortless writing that evokes the sense of something without calling it out directly. Noe has a voice, but he doesn’t use it to shout at you or to force his world on you. He doesn’t have to.
He uses that voice to create the quiet landscape of Eastern Kentucky he mentions; its people and daily life. Every word rings with a candid sincerity. If Between the Country represents the life of this region, then it’s decidedly poignant, raw and gritty, thick with hard work, and still completely and utterly beautiful.
Noe himself isn’t a stranger to hard work. He considers working 12-hour shifts on an oil rig in Eastern Kentucky the “best job he’s ever had, outside of music.” After an attempt to put together a band and career in music eventually brought him back home, he settled into working on the rig, and was encouraged by a mutual friend who happened to be an artist manager. That working relationship led to opening for Colter Wall, another artist you need to know, on multiple occasions.
His influences are diverse, and range from Chuck Berry, in his earlier years, to Bob Dylan, Tom T Hall, and John Prine, for whom he opened three shows earlier this year, after Prine saw him perform in a pre-Grammy tribute show, and whom Noe calls his “musical hero.”
Now he’s poised to release a stellar album, one of the best of the year in any genre. All ten songs are written solely by Noe, and his writing and voice come through with a genuineness and an ease, backed by an immensely talented group of musicians (Dave Cobb on acoustic and electric, Adam Gardner on bass, organ and piano, and Chris Powell provides the drums and percussion). Savannah Conley brings the harmonies with backup vocals, and paired with Ian’s melody, they resonate and build a quiet, powerful sound.
Between The Country is a character study in short-story form that plays like a soundtrack. Only you’ve never seen the movie because it's playing in your mind's eye as you listen. Few writers are able to paint such a stunning visual picture. It’s an auditory experience, absolutely, but it's a visual one as well. It’s rife with imagery that sometimes you have to listen to over and over, to grasp the weight of, and even then, on a random Thursday, while driving to the car wash, a line you've heard a hundred times hits you and there’s new meaning and new significance.
Songs like “Irene” and “Meth Head” deal with the issues of addiction and alcoholism, problems you can find anywhere in the country, but ones that strike an all-too-familiar chord in this particular region; calling the meth addiction “a fever that’s already spread.” Irene unsuccessfully tries to hide her addiction from her family and needs ‘a half a pint’ to stay sane. She wakes up feeling dead, and her addiction is such that she doesn’t want to see her own reflection. The empty-eyed, zombie-like meth heads with ‘shit-mangled’ minds prowl the land, doing whatever they can to get their fix. Musically, “Meth Head” rolls and builds, wave after wave, seemingly endlessly, and I can’t help but wonder if that somehow speaks to the nature of addiction.
“Dead On The River” is a chilling tale of a devout serial killer disposing of his victims, gutted and bound, rolling down the river. The music is captivating; a funky, floaty vibe that, paired with Ian’s imagery, paints the entire scene in your mind. It plays out like a story from True Detective, but only from the murderer’s perspective. It’s exquisitely told and as it folds out, you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing. I was questioning the whole way through, backing up and starting over, trying to make sure I had it right, which I love. Make me work for it. Don’t just give it to me outright.
“If Today Doesn’t Do Me In” follows “DOTR” on the album, and honestly, for me, when that quiet guitar melody starts at the outset, it’s complete catharsis. It’s a total release of the tension from the previous song. It examines the everyday struggles of everyday people, from the hitchhiker to the gas station clerk. It drifts up and down melodically, the acoustic guitar gently sort of lilting back and forth with a sense of guarded optimism, and it ends with this gem: “There’s a feeling you get not far from despair / that sometimes sets in on your mind / But if it’s all that you got / you still set the clock / and get up with a reason to climb.” It’s remarkable. It’s another speechless moment.
Produced by Cobb and recorded live on the floor in just two days, Noe says they went for a warm, analog sound that “makes a good song stand the test of time.”
Inevitably, only time will tell, but I feel absolutely certain in telling you that Between the Country will stand up to that test. People will come across this album 30 years from now and still find it just as meaningful and stirring and evocative as we do. They’ll hear about characters like Irene and Barbara or hear “Letter to Madeline” or “Junk Town” and be just as pulled into their stories as we are. They’ll be sitting up at 2am listening to the same song on repeat for more than an hour, just like I am now.
Call me excited. Geeked. Obsessed. Whatever label you wanna attach to it; I’m that, y’all. I’m all in.
Buy the album. Find him on tour. Be a part of supporting a true artist, in every sense of the word. Do whatever it takes, because without hesitation, I can say that Ian Noe will prove to be one of the great voices of our generation.
“Sometimes when I’m drinkin’ / I sit alone and wait / for the sun to fade out from the sky / and I wish I was leaving to find another fate / and all the while knowing where I’ll die / and glory, glory / we are awaitin’ that sweet someday / when we leave our troubles and are taken / so far away” --Junk Town
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Special Thanks to Kyler Clark for the use of the cover photo and photo in the article: